My favorite thing to do while playing AAA games is to go bug hunting. Not bug as in virtual insects, but bugs as in those weird quirks that totally break the immersion of the game, and put to test my ability to take it serious.
It’s almost like the game laughs back at me for being immersed. I’m reminded that this is still software, and it breaks in very silly ways.
My current video game hot take: Video game bugs are like glitch art. Just a sillier version of that.
It’s incredibly novel to me how each simulated world expresses malfunction in its own unique way.
The way the world breaks in Half Life 2 is wildly different from the way GTA V breaks. Each system is unique and the way it breaks is expressed in its own unique way. When you manage to find a broken moment, it feels special.
Errors make computers interesting.
It’s like they rebel and express a voice of their own for a brief moment, before things return back to normal and you’re expected to pretend like that didn’t just happen, as you’re working your way through the tasks between cut-scene to cut-scene.
One time I booted up GTA V and there was this amazing graphics glitch. It was hilarious at first because it basically turned GTA V into an arthouse game. I guess that’s the fine line that keeps AAA from becoming an alt-game.
The glitch persisted for a long time and I ended up getting really engrossed in this new reality. It felt like being trapped in a glitchified version of Stephen King’s The Mist. Just replace The Mist with a missing texture.
The simulated world of Los Santos functioned as it normally would. It didn’t know. None of the virtual inhabitants recognized the blaring obvious visual issue. I was expected to function with it, looking past the brokenness. I’m the only one that KNEW.
I kinda feel like that’s how playing these massive grand AAA games is, in a nutshell.
They try so hard to be immersive. I’m required to take it serious. For moments I can. I get so into being what I’m asked to be in that game, until I’m reminded that this is still just a game.
One time, in GTA V, I stole one of the large commercial airplanes from the airport to try to fly it as far as I possibly could, just to see how far away from that island world I could get. I reached that point, where I went too far, and the plane just fell away from me. My character was floating in the air, and I watched as this giant aircraft just fell from the sky. It left me behind to fall too. Following it. I landed in the ocean, far away from anything. That’s it. I reached the end of the world’s reality.
I often feel like the pretentiousness of video game’s grand ambition to be “more than theater” “more than movies” “THE greatest medium that combines ALL mediums” is what is “holding games back”. It gets the best of us. In the end games are software. Things will always break, and that will be expressed in these unique ways. Why be more than it really is?
When I played Off-Peak for the first time, I was REALLY into it. I talked to everyone. I followed every and all dialogue branches through. I explored everything… Right before I reached the end, this was literally moments before the end of the game, and I would pass the narrative finish line to get the end of the story… I turned a corner and fell through the floor.
I looked up and watched as the world slowly shrank away from me, falling indefinitely. It felt so intentional. Almost like a plug was pulled. It was like a weird special ending just for me, by the game. It rebelled against the heavily authored experience that it is, to give me this alternate ending.
I realize that I’m ascribing a lot of personality to these glitches, but come on. Sometimes the timing of these things is just too perfect.
The bugs are beautiful touches of software surrealism. They’re often chilling, strange, and unsettling things that make you happy these things don’t happen in the real world.
I remember when the Source Engine (Half Life 2) was new, and the modding community went wild with making weird faces with the characters, seeing the ghastly virtual expressions The G-Man would make if you tried breaking the way his face works… Sometimes it was more fun than the game itself.
(just various gifs…)
For example, I find it fascinating how smaller games can be discovered from glitches. Like look at the Counter-Strike surfing mod that developed from what basically was a fluke.
There are probably better examples. I remember playing on servers way back, and there was a mod where you could race these “cars” (they where pretty clumsy things just made with whatever the engine allowed). We discovered that if you hit someone from a certain angle you would get rocketed into the air (really high!), so instead of racing, playing became all about trying to catapult people. It was hilarious.
Glitches are amazing. We seek them out and make them part of the experience.
Why fight them when you can embrace the inherent brokenness of the medium?
Ok so here’s one last AAA bug story. I saved it for last because it’s my favorite.
For one, Assassin’s Creed Origins has some AMAZING bugs. I have a thread of them here.
Assassin’s Creed Origins has these enemies called Phylakes. It’s an elite enemy… you know, whatever, The Big Bad Bad Guys in the video game lore… So ok, you’re naturally tasked with killing them. There are a certain number of them after you.
So fine, I did the thing. I got them all. When I killed the last one, I decided (for sentimental reasons) that I would hold onto the body. It seemed kinda rude to just leave the last of the Phylakes laying there. The game lets you cary bodies, and you can even put them on your horse or camel. So I put the dead Phylake on my horse and traveled across ancient Egypt with him… interesting thing happened the longer I held onto the corpse.
I picked up and put down this body MANY times while traveling through the world.
After a while, whenever I picked him up, the clothes would stay behind and I would pick up a kinda naked body. Parts of the character were missing where the clothes should be. It got weird and spiky, and distorted… like the model was breaking.
So I guess this is how a body deteriorates in a video game. It glitched away to a point where you can’t interact with it anymore.
Eventually I had to leave the last of the Phylakes behind because the body got too bugy.
This game is an interesting example because its fictional world is based in a fictional virtual reality (The Animus). Bugs should, thematically, make sense here, but still they don’t. I feel like a big narrative opportunity was missed when they didn’t just say “yeah, we meant to do that!” whenever a character walks through a wall.
It’s incredible that I can really get into this game… or any game at all.
The bugs I find in Assassin’s Creed Origins very much work against the immersion. They’re things that I should look past and suspend my disbelief while also applauding it for being a true cinematic masterpiece and pinnacle achievement of the game medium… even if I just got hurdled hundreds of feet in the air, fish are swimming outside the water, the body I picked up just distorted into a million pieces, the clothes stayed behind a character suspended in the air, and characters inexplicably float while the cutscene is playing… I’m supposed to be immersed. I do until I’m woken up by the strange and wildly ridiculous bugs that are often so silly it’s like they’re self-aware of what they’re working against.
I feel like they’re laughing at me for even trying to take anything coming from a computer serious.
Games want me to take them serious, but it’s SO HARD!
I find it amazing when games play into the inherent flaws of the medium tho.
I love all the work done by art games in this area.
Our platform is broken, flawed, buggy, runs slow, is kinda shitty, too pretentious for its own good maybe (depending on how long you’ve been here), and sometimes you just want a break from all that hype… it’s software after all.
We build these worlds by working in IDE’s and overwhelming UI’s all day. It’s amazing that so much manages to get pulled off with such esoteric and cryptic tools. Sometimes games feel like a happy accident.
So it’s beautiful when you find space to embrace that virtual echo. Those fragments, broken, glitches, and all things inherent to the medium instead of fighting it.
These traits that keep our quest for realism from being real, or prevent it from being an immersive experience that would rival any Hollywood movie… what we think hold it back from validation as a “serious” art form is actually what makes it so attractive.
The fact that it’s a simulation (fake) is why it’s special.
There’s a slew of indie alt-game devs that do work like this.
One of my favorites is AAA Software (Premium Videogame Art Collective 60 FPS, 4K) (Play Utopias!)
I fell in love with their stuff when I first played Data Mutations.
Their work is so self-aware of what it is, and what it’s doing.
It screams “Yay! Video games! But also… Fuck Video Games!”
They’re these really surrealist, absurd, strange, wonderful, and joyfully irritating, string of experiences that explore various themes. Like many alt-game walking sims, playing is almost like being in a surreal dream. AAA does this extremely well. I love how they break out of and into the various themes, while still maintaining a sense of consistency.
Utopias is the newest one. In my opinion it is everything their other games were, but much more concise and self-aware. The anti-capitalist themes in it give me life!
There’s this one scene in Utopias where you play this really over-the-top bizarre rail shooter and have to “repopulate” the environment by shooting it with a gun that grows trees and places animals… I paraphrase heavily. It was a pretty overwhelming experience and I feel like I was JUST managing to “win” at something that only loosely seemed to care about the definition between “win” and “lose”… It’s all a blur.
Work like this pushes the medium forward with that self-awareness. It’s a wonderful ridiculous parody, comedy, aggressive philosophical stance, while also being MORE than just a game. It’s more than a system to win or lose in, or some box to perfect a fictional skill… I love it when it really stops mattering.
Games like this can’t “break” because they’re too self-aware of what they are. They stopped caring to be something that games are kinda bad at (like competing with Hollywood to be the next Citizen Cain of video games), and just being this piece of digital expression.
I find that aspect as fascinating as net-art.
Net-art is an expression of everything that makes the internet what it is, distilled, packaged into a strange artistic piece… games like this are everything that make games interesting, packaged into their own experience.
Another incredible example of a game that takes self-awareness of the medium, and embraces it to “do its own thing” is Black Room by Cassie McQuater.
Black Room is a browser-based narrative experience. There’s a story to it, but it kind of melts into being a LOT of things. It’s a very profound piece that’s rich with feminist messages.
It’s one of those things that’s really hard to describe once you come out of it. It leaves you at a loss for words, and I love games that do that. It’s unique for how it completely recycles video game imagery, the way things function in a browser, the digital system it is in… and throws you on this surrealist journey.
The writing is delivered in unique ways that make it especially impactful.
You really need to see it for yourself. It captures a lot of why I think games, net-art, and digital art are special. It’s a blend of digital expression, that VERY MUCH takes charge of the platform it’s on.
I say all this because it’s work like this that I have tremendous respect for. People like saying that this sort of art is “pretentious”, especially when they come at it from the expectation of “video game”, but sometimes I think it’s the other way around.
I find AAA games, our desire to be as real and heavy handed about The Heavy Issues (give the player the choice to kill and ooops you killed so you’re bad, make the player feel bad about killing now!) actually much more pretentious.
I’m exhausted of reading interviews from the white dude AAA masterminds behind things like Prey and The Last of Us 2… or that guy that made stuff like Heavy Rain… whatever I’m too burned out to look up the names… and these interviews are so shallow. Talking about how they started seeing women as people when they had a daughter… Goodness, how these interviews burn into your brain and just kinda melt together to form the same personality… What we choose to put on what pedestal, and how pretentious the “deep” issues are that they try to tackle is just exhausting. Especially when you put all that in context of the abuse problem that plagues games. I think we call the wrong things pretentious.
Auteurism in games gets discussed a lot. It’s often in context of white cishet men’s vision of what “the genius auteur” is. Like discussions about including your name in the title of the game, who gets recognition, who gets left out… Yes, I’m cynical. I think it’s bullshit that minorities here get so overlooked and downplayed when they make the best work. See how The Last of Us 2 was lauded as somehow being the “breakthrough” for queer representation in games when The Queers have been making immensely groundbreaking games about themselves for MUCH longer…
So we have games that completely leave behind any and all convention of what a game is, should be, should be viewed as, subject mater, personal expression… and become something of their own. They’re beautiful examples of digital art.
One that’s been on my mind a lot lately, that I feel like encompasses all that amazingly, is Nightmare Temptation Academy.
This one won the grand prize at A MAZE, and rightfully so.
The topics are very hard hitting. It’s dark, pessimistic, extremely emotional…
I find this one profound in a ton of ways. I think special attention should be paid to the aesthetic. It’s rich with that.
The visual style throws back to a type of internet nostalgia that’s easy to brush off because of its association with the “DeviantArt fangirl” (that art style associated with “difficult girls”)… You know, complicated angsty goth teens. It’s a nostalgia that’s easily overlooked (invalidated) for that reason because of where it’s coming from.
We tend to respect the nostalgia aesthetic that men’s experiences can relate to. These are the popular nostalgia aesthetics… this one is different.
This one reminds me of that fan art your highschool goth girl would draw, along with angsty poems about life, malls, school, and crushes. Everything about what this game takes on, and just HOW it visually looks is very brave.
The themes often talk about suicide. It’s not an easy thing to play. It stays with you. It pulls you into this world, and REALLY goes there. It talks about the things we shouldn’t talk about from a very feminist angle. It embraces all the things that you’re shamed for and shouldn’t be. The visual style even re-enforces that.
I think it’s valuable for that bravery. There’s a cathartic feeling you get from seeing this and being like “Yes! That got said!”…
I also don’t accept criticism about it for being “too dark” when you REALLY should go play The Last of Us 2 and then say that. Because somehow we only accept violence if it’s in that commercial context.
I just think we have strong cultural double standard when it comes to what type of “grittiness” we accept, and even find entertainment, as contrasted to the less popular “grittiness” coming out of marginalized experiences.
Games like Nightmare Temptation Academy are stories from another angle. Another type of experience. They are not the popular narrative driven by men. They’re the voice of someone else, and based on experiences that have a valid artistic place. Nightmare Temptation Academy is phenomenally brave and hard hitting for all these reasons.
It’s an incredible achievement.
I find reactions to this similar to reactions people had with “Everything is Going to be OK”. This one is my own game based on brokenness, life, horror, comedy, surrealism, and personal expression. It’s easy to condemn for its “dark themes” when in reality we give a free pass to much more damaging media.
Games like Nightmare Temptation Academy or “Everything is Going to be OK” come from a place of understanding. They do the emotional labor to really talk about these issues. There’s a healing aspect to that. A catharsis from knowing that you’re not alone, and seeing work from an artist that reflects that.
Games love putting the cultural focus (value) on the success stories. The messages that we choose to matter the most are the experiences of white men. The “visionaries” that drive the AAA titles… I’m tired. I know I sound cynical. I yell into the social media void everyday asking Kotaku for accountability over what they did to me, over a story that covered the abuse of another visionary white man here.
I guess even when covering abuse, you get to abuse those that where already abused… because fuckit. You have the power! Always and forever.
You can do whatever you want to those weaker, smaller than you, because you can get away with it.
I mean, it’s unbelievable to me that they’ll run these stories and champion themselves as metoo allies, while having done this to myself and others. It’s brutal. It’s almost sadistic… to be able to do this to people but also be lauded as “the good guy” at the same time.
If you own the platform, you have power. You own the cultural narrative.
So I’m tired of that narrative. I’m beyond exhausted by what we push as valuable, as legitimate, while turning around and downplaying the importance of work from minorities here. Work that’s truly brave because it goes against every grain imaginable. It really challenges the norms.
How can we ever have change if we keep giving the same abusive people power?
But OK that’s a tangent. I think it’s appropriate tho because it goes hand in hand with the meaningful artistic work done here.
There’s this subculture in indie games, and I think it’s truly a hopeful one.
I think you can find a lot of meaning by looking at the work done here that embraces the inherent flaws, broken themes, deterioration, visual echoes and taboos, of the medium. Work from artists that embrace the medium’s brokenness the same way as they embrace life’s brokenness… those flaws that remind us that we’re interacting with a simulation on a machine, we’re alive in a broken world, part of a broken system, alive is painful, but it’s beautiful… the virtual realm is as broken as the real one…
There’s beautiful poetic expression from this work. It’s truly unique for how it exists the way it exists, and for the voices of the people that made it.
Maybe someday they’ll get the recognition they deserve because perfection is overrated.
Broken is beautiful!
So, while you’re here… play some of these games ~
There aren’t really words…
Breathe by Phazero
Kitty Horrorshow’s work
Sometimes to Deal With the Difficulty of Being Alive…
And a few more… while I’m dropping links… why not ~
Haunted PS1 Demo Disc
I Am Dead, Where Are My Keys
T a k e Y o u r T i m e
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